By Deirdre Devers.
‘You are despicable little liars’, spits Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) to a room full of schoolgirls during the first act of Robin Hardy’s cult classic, The Wicker Man. Sgt. Howie wields the full authority of his policeman’s uniform when he arrives on the idyllic and remote island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison.
His presence and curt manner are not welcomed by the inhabitants as they prepare for their annual May Day celebration. The pious policeman must unravel the mystery in an environment that looks familiar, yet is entirely alien to him. Townspeople fornicate openly in the town square. The church is in disuse. They sing bawdy songs in praise of the union of flesh and fertility. Howie knows these pagan sun-worshippers are colluding to withhold the child’s whereabouts. His dogged investigations take him to Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who presides over the island and its pagan ways. Howie discovers troubling evidence that points to the likelihood of human sacrifice rituals taking place. Was Rowan Morrison the latest victim or is she the next intended victim? The sensual and horrific scenes build to one of the most satisfying yet unsettling conclusions in cinematic history.
Though this film was produced during the era of Hammer Films and stars Lee, this is not a Hammer Film. Robin Hardy’s classic film is generally described as horror, yet there is no impervious boogieman, bad things don’t always happen at night and there is no Hitchcockian suspense. However, this film claimed its cult status as the best British horror film by deftly adding various layers of troubling questions and dread wrapped in erotic and simple visually arresting images to produce a psychic queasiness in the viewer. This has as much to do with the intelligent script of Anthony Schaffer, Hardy’s adroit direction, and convincing performances from not only professional actors such as Woodward and Lee but also the location locals.
This is also a horror film that manages successfully to be a musical. The folk songs performed throughout the film are catchy in communicating additional details with a playfulness that lends itself to the developing onscreen tension. This is most noteworthy in a scene in which the innkeeper’s daughter (Britt Ekland) accompanies her siren song to Howie with a flick of her hips and much writhing. The inclusion of Paul Giovanni’s soundtrack in this DVD edition is a welcome bonus.
In addition to the theatrical version, the director’s cut includes an additional fifteen minutes of restored scenes that, despite their graininess, give a bit more insight into Howie and background on the islander’s rituals. The 35-minute featurette The Wicker Man Enigma offers interviews with Lee and Woodward who provide plenty of anecdotes about the production. In one, Woodward reflects on a goat so terrified that it couldn’t stop urinating. The 50-minute documentary Burnt Offering has film critic Mark Kermode in conversation with the usual suspects. There is also a 1973 archive interview with Lee and Hardy. Together, these behind-the-scene accounts supply an engrossing account of the genesis of the film, and the adversity that had to be overcome to shoot and distribute it.
The Wicker Man: Collector’s Edition is a thoughtful and well-constructed collection of sights, sounds, and reminisces that showcases not only one of the most riveting works in film history but also the history behind its production. Make space on the shelf for this comprehensive collection and put Neil LaBute’s 2006 version aside – unless you’re in the mood for 102 minutes of unintended comedy.
Deirdre Devers is a researcher of screen cultures, specifically digital games and film.
The Wicker Man(1973)
Director Robin Hardy
Producer Peter Snell
With Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland
Runtime 88 minutes theatrical version / 99 minutes director’s cut
DVD: UK, 2006 Distributed by Optimum Home Entertainment (region 2) Aspect Ratio Widescreen Anamorphic 1.85:1
You can also read Linda Hutcheson’s history of the marketing of The Wicker Man here.